What does a 'two-state solution' mean?
By Reuven Brenner
In light of what is going on the Middle East, and the efforts of US Secretary of State John Kerry to restart negotiations to reach a ''two-state'' solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, it is worth briefly summarizing solutions I write about 30 years ago. (See also Unsettled civilizations: How the US can handle Iraq, Asia Times Online, June 23, 2004).
The efforts of the United States and Europe to bring about a "two-state" solution in the Middle East are incomprehensible.
A stable "state" must have one army - in Israel, that was Ben-Gurion's, the country's first prime minister - correct - and painfully delivered message when firing on Altalena in June 1948. He
ordered the newly created Israel Defence Forces (IDF) to fire on the ship by that name, when fractions of the Irgun, a para-military organization, were unwilling to put down the arms and be absorbed into the IDF. Following that painful episode in Israel's history - the idea of Jews shooting Jews few years after 6 million perished still shocks - the fractions of the Irgun put down the arms. The new state's monopoly on force has not been challenged since.
Somehow this lesson has not sunk in elsewhere, the spread of failing states around the world notwithstanding: and they began failing when, rationalized one way or another, states started to tolerate military groups within their borders, in the Middle East in particular. At one time it was Jordan for a while (until the king's army pushed out Fattah), Lebanon, and now Syria - to name just two.
How does then the current push toward a two state-solution (for Israel and Palestinians) in the Middle East look today through this prism? The Palestinians have many armies, and no leader in sight is willing and be able to do what Ben-Gurion did.
It is not clear with whom to then even negotiate or about what, since nothing would be enforceable. What type of "state" is anyone talking about? What can one negotiate about, when one side cannot enforce anything? It is not even clear whether there is such a thing as a "Palestinian tribe": There appear four rather distinct ones, with only one represented in the negotiation.
Some 60% of Jordan's population is Palestinian, and they may represent one group. The present "two-state" discussion does not even refer to them. Then there are the Palestinians living in the West Bank, who have representation in the present negotiations.
The third group includes the about 1,400,000 Arabs within Israel's 1967 borders - who prefer to be living within a prosperous, stable Israel; this is what one can infer from the fact that they have been "voting with their feet" and have stayed - though they were free to migrate, as many discontented people throughout history have done. After all, that is what created the US, Canada, Australia, Singapore, Latin American countries - the list is long).
Last but not least, there is "refugee/welfare tribe" - the fourth group - created and sustained inadvertently by the continued existence of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) - dispersed in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon and Syria.
This refugee group has different features from the other three, and is probably the toughest to find solutions for. Whereas some 50 million European refugees after World War II have long been absorbed in various destinations, it is reasonable to ask why is it that the only refugee problem dating from the 1940s has not been, and what can be the subject of negotiation with representatives of this group?
The answer to the first part of the question is that when the United Nations voted for Israel, they also voted setting up a welfare plan for the roughly 400,000 Palestinians who left in 1948 what became then Israel's territory.
The UNRWA was the institution involved and was supposed to last for two years. Yet it still exists - and it is a unique institution: there has never in the subsequent 65 years been another such institution created to deal exclusively with one particular refugee group, and defining descendants of the 1948 refugees as "refugees" too.
Inadvertently this institution created over the seven decades a Palestinian welfare tribe, many of whom still live in camps, with few rights, and depending on the continued subsidies from "strangers''. This group does not have much in common with the other three - though it has some traits common with other welfare tribes created inadvertently around the world (aboriginals on Canada's reservations being one of them).
Although the world tends to lump together these groups, 60% of Israeli Arabs declare that they would not allow their daughter to marry a Palestinian even from the West Bank.
What can Israel even negotiate with representatives of this group, for whose present numbers the United Nations bears responsibility?
It is not clear then what Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to achieve. It would be good to hear first just what does he or the State Department mean by the word "state''. With whom is Israel supposed to have credible negotiations since there is not one Palestinian leader who can enforce monopoly on force - as Gaza's case shows - where, and this is no coincidence, 1.1 million of it's 1.5 population are "refugees" according to UNRWA's unique, unprecedented definition.
Imagine if the UNRWA's unique definition was applied to 50 million wandering refugees post-World War II, to Asian war refugees, to refugees from African wars, or to any other refugee group ever whose descendants are dispersed around the world.
What makes the push and timing of discussions about a "two-state" solution even more unusual is that it is happening when, except for Israel, almost all Middle Eastern and some North African states are falling apart, demonstrating that without monopoly on force, there are no "states''.
Syria is fighting along tribal and religious lines; Lebanon, the same, with much of its Christian community by now in France and Canada; the Kurds have carved themselves out of Iraq, in practice, if not yet in principle (the Iraqi army is not allowed to enter the Kurdish part without approval from local authorities, where the local army rules).
And Egypt with its 80 million people - it was only 30 million in the 1960s - its youth having been given no opportunities, appears heading toward a civil war. Demography is not quite destiny, but when a youth bulge is not given chances, people go hungry - and they go to the barricades.
The European 1848 Revolutions - called "the Spring of Nations" - are a good reminder - and that ended badly. It may not be a coincidence either that information at that time was spreading more rapidly than previously, through trains and coffee houses, where newspapers were the equivalent of today's access to Wi-Fi. But that historical precedent is a reminder too that technology does not guarantee any "springs''.
Perhaps it is time for Mr Kerry - or anyone - to clarify to start with what they mean by the word "state", and then perhaps one would understand what is this "two-state solution" in the Middle East is about.
For the time being, these words lack any meaning in today's Middle East.
Reuven Brenner holds the Repap Chair at McGill University's Desautels Faculty of Management. This article draws on his History - the Human Gamble (University of Chicago, 1983), Betting on Ideas: Wars, Invention, Inflation (University of Chicago, 1985) and ''Unsettled Civilizations'', Asia Times Online, June 23, 2004.